2010 Review of Books
Unlinked means I recommend against getting it. Linked and italicized means it’s actively recommended. Linked but not italicized is somewhere in between. The ordering is not entirely accurate.
Secretsby Daniel Ellsberg
A fantastic book. Ellsberg turns out to be an incredible writer and he tells not only his own incredible story of the fight to release the Pentagon Papers (did you know theNew York Timesactually stole them from his house?), but, even more interestingly, recounts a great deal of fascinating personal experience about what it was like working with McNamara and Kissinger and trying to maintain your sanity in the highest levels of government.
With the WikiLeaks cables in the news, this book is more relevant than ever. And personally, I can’t wait until Ellsberg’s next book,The American Doomsday Machine, comes out. (Here’s an excerptfrom back when he planned to publish it online; since thenBloomsbury snapped it up.)
Also, be sure to check outthese commentsfrom Davies and Galbraith.
Bright-Sidedby Barbara Ehrenreich
A principled opposition to positive thinking has always been a common Ehrenreich theme and here she expands it to book-length, delivering exactly what you’d expect. The good news is that it’s trenchant and witty, the bad news is that if you read a lot of Ehrenreich you probably know just what’s coming.
Scientist in the Cribby Allison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Patricia K. Kuhl
Gopnik et al. summarize the findings of their wave of infant research — namely that infants are trying to puzzle things out through experiments rather than just sitting there waiting for their brains to grow. Gopnik, as you’d expect, is a good writer, but their attempts to link their research with philosophy are a bit strained and the research is still weak enough that the book doesn’t quite feel like it pays off the title.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Everybody’s reading it, but that doesn’t mean you have to. A collection of fairly mundane behavioral psychology experiments. If you’re really so deluded as to believe people aren’t predictably irrational, it’s not clear to me how a mere book could possibly help you.
A Bee Stung Me So I Killed All The Fish[PDF] by George Saunders
I love Saunders. I readpretty much everything he’s writtenthis year. This collection features some of his sillier pieces.
The Braindead Megaphoneby George Saunders
Saunders is great, but he hasn’t quite honed his nonfiction talents the way he has with his fiction. Some fantastic pieces, some fascinating ones, and some that don’t quite work.
Prince of the Marshesby Rory Stewart
I occasionally have this fantasy, while reading the news, that whatever person I’m reading about has been fired and, through some miraculous fluke, I have been given their job. Would I make a hash of it? Or, would by naive mind and outsider’s expertise allow me to do it in a fascinating new way?
In this book, Rory Stewart describes what happened when he was made a colonial governor of a province in Iraq. Brilliant fellow that he is, he does a remarkably good job all things considered, but also writes a questioning, soul-searching, fascinating book about the experience that highlights what an impossible task it really is.
False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economyby Dean Baker
A short, clear book on why the economy failed, who did it, and how to set it right by someone who was absolutely right about it all along. If you only want to read one book about the economic crisis, this would be an excellent choice.
The Accidental Theoristby Paul Krugman
A collection of Krugman’s columns forSlate. It was before he really came off his neoliberal high, but after he learned to write, so while they’re not always right they’re almost always delightful (andSlategave him a lot more freedom to be playful than theTimesdoes). A very fun book about a wide range of issues in economics. (Here’sa nice reviewfrom Brad DeLong.)
The Political Brainby Drew Westen
A decent book that could have been great if it had a real editor. There are really three things in here: 1) some fantastic examples of what Democratsshouldsay if they have any spine (they’re the kind of political propaganda Lakoff would write if Lakoff could write political propaganda), 2) some pretty bogus fMRI experiments to give the text in (1) the illusion of being backed in hard science, 3) several hundred pages of pointless rambling and repetition. If only an editor could have at least removed (3).
Get Out The Voteby Donald Green and Alan Gerber
Every year, thousands of Americans head out onto the streets to knock on their neighbors’ doors and remind them to vote. Does any of it have any effect? Green and Gerber had the bright idea of running an experiment to see: Randomize the houses and ask the canvassers to knock on half of them and ignore the other half. Then, check the voting records (which are public) to see how many people in each group voted. The difference can tell you if you made a difference.
This brilliant idea sparked a whole field of experimental research about getting out the vote, which Green and Gerber summarize in this short book, aimed at some mix of scientists and political professionals.
Eating the Dinosaurby Chuck Klosterman
Absolutely fantastic. Could hardly put it down. Chuck Klosterman is definitely in the running for greatest living essayist. The book is a collection of essays, but not, as far as I can tell, essays that were ever published anywhere else. They’re each just magical gems that fit together just perfectly. I even liked the stuff about football (and I’ve never seen a game of football).
I liked this so much I went on to read all his other books in reverse chronological order:
Chuck Klosterman IVby Chuck Klosterman
Great, but not quiteasgreat.
Killing Yourself in Order to Liveby Chuck Klosterman
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffsby Chuck Klosterman
But I could not read eitherDowntown Owl(his novel) orFargo Rock City. The rest I couldn’t put down. I guess start withEating the Dinosaurand see how far you get.
Doubt is Their Productby David Michaels
There are a vast array of government agencies, like the EPA and OSHA, whose job is to protect Americans by examining the science and outlawing things that hurt people. But what if the bad guys get to make up the science? David Michaels examines the whole industry of scientists-for-hire that try to manufacture doubt about the harms that big business commits. The title comes from a tobacco company memo and the tobacco companies are infamous for trying to shed doubt on the studies attacking their products, but the tactics they invented have now spread to every little chemical additive.
Michaels is now head of OSHA. On the one hand, it’s great that such a corporate critic has such an influential position. On the other hand, this book is written in the style you’d expect from someone who could become head of OSHA: it’s cautious, not polemical, and obsessed with proving the details, rather than the bigger picture.
Why Not Socialism?by G.A. Cohen
A great little book from the late philosopher Jerry Cohen. Not quite as great ashis comments about the shmoos, but a wonderful (and, sadly, all too rare) attempt to get people thinking about what socialism really means and whether it would be practical.
Free Schoolsby Jonathan Kozol
An angry little book not about how bad the school system is, like Kozol’s usual beat, but about the people trying to change it. Both the folks, like Kozol, going into the inner city and trying to start new schools and the others running away to the land to frolic in freedom. Certainly a time capsule from the 1970s, but a fascinating one.
Making Moviesby Sidney Lumet
A fairly self-absorbed book about what it means to make a movie. Some decent details about the practicalities in here, but mixed in with a lot of random musing and personal reflection.
The Persistence of Povertyby Charles Karelis
I feel like I’ve written so much about this book, but none of it appears to have made it to this blog. A great little book, just enough to explain one big idea and how it overturns what you think about classical economics and poverty and much else besides. Here’sa quick bitfrom Matt Yglesias on it.
Caught Between Two Worlds: The Diary of a Lowell Mill Girl
Mill by David Macaulay
I don’t understand why everyone loves Macaulay so.
Belles of New England
The Industrial Workerby Norman Ware
A fascinating history about how mill girls and shoemakers invented socialism and fought for it in the early days of the republic, before Jefferson’s dream of independent men was crushed by the onslaught of industrialization.
Acme Novelty Library, #19by Chris Ware
Chris Ware is magic. This book consists mostly of a chapter from the work-in-progressRusty Brown, which I was initially skeptical about, but turns out to be just amazingly great. AndBuilding Storiesis incredible too.
Ware’s method is to publish a page each week or so in a weekly paper (the SundayNew York Times, theChicago Reader), then redraw the entire chapter and send it out as an edition of theNovelty Library, then redraw it a third time when the entire book is published. So this is a way of getting intermediate results, but you could just wait for the final books themselves (if they are ever finished).
The Art of Lobbyingby Bertram Levine
A guide by a practitioner, for practitioners. Not great, but you can pick up a little bit of the flavor of the job from reading what the insiders say.
Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilizationby John Searle
Brilliant.My review is here.
The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Strongerby Wilkinson and Pickett
Not as good as I was hoping, but still a compelling case for equality with a vast array of data.
Women at Work
Loom and Spindleby Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson
A fantastic memoir of a fantastic time. Shows how radical even the moderate mill girls were.
Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value and How to Take Advantage of Itby William Poundstone
Poundstone is one of the great science writers of all time. Here he takes on behavioral economics at the very top of his game. Full of fascinating ideas.
Influenceby Robert Cialdini
Covers the usual results of the science on persuasion in a decent and clear way.
Education and the Cult of Efficiencyby Raymond E. Callahan
Proof that business has been trying to take over education for over a century.
On Writingby Stephen King
Nothing earth-shattering, but it turns out Stephen King is actually a good writer. I honestly had no idea.
Schooling in Capitalist America(reread) by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
The best book on the real meaning of school.
Becoming Attached(reread) by Robert Karen
One of my favorite books of all time. Probably the best work of science writing I’ve ever read.
Moral Politics(reread) by George Lakoff
The best book on American politics.
Unconditional Parenting(reread) by Alfie Kohn
How Children Fail(reread) by John Holt
An amazing book on education.
The Lobbyistsby Jeffrey Birnbaum
Dumbing Us Downby John Taylor Gatto
Winning Your Election the Wellstone Wayby Jeff Blodgett and Bill Lofy and others
Really just a more-detailed version ofPolitics the Wellstone Way.
Bonfire of the Vanitiesby Tom Wolfe
Absolutely fantastic. A rare must-read novel — packed full of information about society, journalism, activism, race, etc. I can’t convey just how good it really is. It’s likeThe Power Brokerof fiction.
The Checklist Manifestoby Atul Gawande
Not a bad book by any means, but its constrained focus means it’s not quite as thrilling as Gawande’s other books. It ends up mostly being a series of stories about how great checklists can be. Checklists are interesting, but they’re a very small piece of the institutional change that this book should really be about. You get a few hints at other pieces through the well-researched examples, but they’re only hints.
The Revisionists Revised by Diane Ravitch
Eminently skimmable — Ravitch barely even tries to mount an argument. Instead she just sort of fumes for a hundred pages or so at the radical scholars who dared to point out the invention of school wasn’t so nobly motivated. Well, she’s come a long way — now she’s basically one of them. (See this piece on her reversal.)
Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley Schoolby Daniel Greenberg
Sudbury has some aspects of magic and nothing conveys them better than this book.
Learning all the Timeby John Holt
Political Pollingby Jeffrey Stonecash
Has some decent stuff on the business side of things — how to write polling reports and get clients and so on.
The Big Shortby Michael Lewis
Oh, what to say about this book? It’s well-written, as you’d expect, though no knockout. It tells a fascinating story about some aspects of the crisis, but goes far from unravelling the whole thing.
How to Win Friends and Influence People(reread) by Dale Carnegie
There’s a reason this is a classic. It articulates a way of dealing with people, founded on concern and empathy, and convincingly argues that this kind style is actually the more productive one for getting things done. Instead of yelling at people to do things, you make themwantto help you. And the book itself is a genius exemplar of this practice. Instead of berating you for being a jerk, like most people would, it persuades you towantto change.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksby Rebecca Skloot
Everyone has praised this book, and for good reason — it deftly interweaves an incredible story of science with the heartbreaking tragedy of the people science studies. Nothing earthshattering, but a great piece of writing.
The Design of Designby Fred Brooks
No deep lasting insights, but it is fascinating to watch Brooks struggle with these questions and it helps you struggle as well.
The Case Against Standardized Testsby Alfie Kohn
If you need more reasons to hate standardized tests, this book is full of them.
When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fishby Martin Gardner
In memoriam. In the same way that the spirit of Lenny Bruce passed through Bill Hicks and now Louis CK, the ghost of Feynman passed to Martin Gardner. His wit and curiosity, combined with a gift for explanation, did more than almost anyone to promote a genuine appreciation for math and science. This essay collection was his last book. (Although I’m sure many, many more will come posthumously.)
Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequalityby Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs
If the state of politics gets you down about your fellow man, this well-researched scientific book will persuade you that even Americans are egalitarians at heart.
Getting to Yesby Roger Fisher and William Ury
This book is full of alternate strategies to try, but has very little on the key negotiation question of what to do about distributing the surplus.
Expert Political Judgmentby Philip Tetlock
This book is kind of a bore to read, but the story it tells is fascinating, sojust read Louis Menand’s summaryinstead.
101 Things I Learned in Business Schoolby Michael W. Preis with Matthew Frederick
A sweet, short book with cute pictures. Smart idea for a series.
The Way We Were?[online] by Richard Rothstein
A fantastic debunking of the “kids were so much smarter back then” myth.
The Matthew Effectby Daniel Rigney
Short and unmemorable.
Taking Economic Seriouslyby Dean Baker
A nice little summary of Dean’s big ideas.
The Meaning of David Cameronby Richard Seymour
A short book on what’s happened to British politics from a radical perspective.
Managing to Change the Worldby Allison Green and Jerry Hauser
The best book on the practicalities of management I’ve ever read. Whereas most books focus on vague and meaningless advice, this book is clear about the nuts and bolts.
Workers in a Labyrinthby Robert Jackall
Not as great as my favorite book of all-time, Jackall’sMoral Mazes, but a fascinating look at how normal people make sense of their daily work lives.
Disconnect by Morris Fiorina
Fiorina has no idea what he’s talking about in this one; it’s completely ridiculous. There was a long period in American politics where, to prevent blacks from voting, southern whites excluded blacks from the Democratic party primary and then always voted for the Democratic nominee in the general. Blacks could legally vote, but only in the general, when it didn’t make any difference.
The result was that a whole lot of racist, conservative politicians ended up in the Democratic Party and so politics appeared less polarized — there were conservatives Democrats (and some liberal Republicans) and the conservatives and the liberals could work “across party lines” to get things done.
Eventually the Supreme Court outlawed this noxious practice and the south started sending Republicans to Congress instead. That led to the conservatives leaving the Democratic party (and then the liberal Republicans getting kicked out too) and now when liberals or conservatives all work together, they only need to do so within one party. The result is what appears to be an increase in party polarization. Instead of a couple Democratic liberals and a couple Republican liberals writing a bill, you just get a bunch of Democratic liberals writing a bill.
This is such an obvious explanation and MoFi does his best to ignore it, looking everywhere but the obvious place so he can wonder about the dangers of polarization.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(1 of 3) by Stieg Larsson
This book has no deep point to make, Nora Ephron hasably chronicled its stylistic oddities, and the plot is more bizarre than compelling. Yet I couldn’t put it down. Indeed, I dare say I enjoyed it.
The Girl who Played with Fire(2 of 3) by Stieg Larsson
The Girl who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest(3 of 3) by Stieg Larsson
These two tell a different, and in some ways more interesting story than the first one, but it’s not enough to change my fundamental evaluation.
However, I do much prefer the original titles, which translate roughly to:Men Who Hate Women,The Girl Who Played with Fire, andThe Exploding Social Safety Net. I guess it’s nice when that sort of thing can be a bestseller.
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Themby Elif Batuman
Hilarious, brilliant, fantastic. There’s no justification for this book being as good as it is. Even I wasn’t interested in reading a book about Russian literary scholars, but it’s just incredible good and I’m glad I did.
This is Your Country on Drugsby Ryan Grim
I would not have thought the world needed another book on drugs, but this one turns out to be basically perfect. Comprehensive, erudite, funny, and realistic — Grim definitely inhales.
Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life(1 of 6) by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour(6 of 6) by Bryan Lee O’Malley
You shoulddefinitelysee the movie and then, if you do see it, it’s worth reading the books. The books are much deeper and darker than the movie otherwise lets on. You realize that the film you saw as an example of joy and exuberance is actually incredibly depressing.
By contrast, we will just forget that someone made a movie ofBonfire of the Vanities. Yeek.
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Delivering Happinessby Tony Hsieh
This book is more the story of Hsieh’s insane journey toward creating Zappos than the business advice book it looks like, but that’s OK because it’s an incredible story and Hsieh’s exuberant retelling makes it impossible to put down.
Meta Math!by Gregory Chaitin
Chaitin makes an obscure field you’ve never heard of like Algorithmic Information Theory sound interesting and fun, even if you don’t know any math.
Philosophy in a New Centuryby John Searle
A collection of some great essays by Searle.
The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker
Drucker sounds like the kind of person I should like, but I’ve never actually liked him.
Socks by Beverly Cleary
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary
I read these to the seven-year-old, at her insistence. They weren’t great, but they were at least tolerable, unlike some of the other stuff she likes.
XKCD, vol. 0 by Randall Munroe
You no doubt already read xkcd online. Yet apparently many people also bought this paper copy. And they said print was dead!
The Promise: President Obama, Year Oneby Jonathan Alter
No great revelations, but it is shocking how little actual thought goes on in the Obama White House.
Microeconomicsby Samuel Bowles
A textbook that totally upends the field of classical economics. Sadly, it can be a bit hard to follow, but I wrotesummaries of it here.
All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essaysby George Orwell (with introduction by Keith Gessen)
Orwell is magic.
Toyota Production Systemby Taiichi Ohno
It’s hard to find a better book that describes what lean production, in its original sense, is all about than this translated work from its creator. I hope that Ohno one day gets the recognition he deserves: as one of the world’s first pioneers in what is undoubtedly the greatest human art form (with sex running a close second).
Freedomby Jonathan Franzen
Flashes of greatness mixed with strings of ridiculousness. (This is Franzen’s Great American Novel, in case you hadn’t heard.) Could have been truly great if Franzen had a great editor, but instead all his indulgences were left in. It’s certainly no competition for DFW. (Sorry, Franzen!)
The Machine that Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production—Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industryby James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos
Not bad, but feels a bit like reading a book by a bunch of blind men trying to explain the elephant charging toward them.
Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman
Did I really read this book? I don’t remember it at all.
How to Become a Scandalby Laura Kipnis
Kipnis’ writing is fun, as always, but there’s no real insight here.
Poisoned for Pennies: The Economics of Toxics and Precautionby Frank Ackerman
A fantastic book on the serious trouble with using mathematical cost-benefit analyses to try to decide when to protect the environment.
Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert O. Hirschman
A disappointment. Perhaps all its insights have become common knowledge since then.
Beyond the Hoaxby Alan Sokal
Alan Sokal returns again with a book collecting and integrating his papers on the philosophy of science (although there is still some repetition). Sokal’s clear thinking on difficult philosophical issues is always appreciated, but this time around I’m convinced thathe’s wrong about the Edinburgh set. The rest of it is great, though, especially if you haven’t read it before. (There’s also some good newish stuff too, including some stuff aboutProphets Facing Backward.)
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joyby Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich makes a convincing case for the ecstatic tradition in American life. My only regret is that it lacks a chapter on raves.
The Mind-Body Problemby Rebecca Goldstein
A nice book about the problem with marrying a genius. See also: the filmWhatever Works.
The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Artby Don Thompson
This is another book about a weird subject that goes into too much detail. Thompson gives a decent overview of the art market, but then spends too much time getting into obscure detail about the people involved. Modern art sure is weird, though.
The Cartoon Introduction to Economicsby Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman
Funny (especially the intro) and some basic economics, but nothing stupendous on either front.
When Brute Force Failsby Mark A. R. Kleiman
A fantastic book. More gushingin my review.
Money for Nothingby John Gillespie and David Zweig
A quick read on why corporate boards suck so very much.
Ha’Penny(2 of 3) by Jo Walton
Half a Crown(3 of 3) by Jo Walton
A good fun detective story combined with interesting speculative fiction. (I read the first book,Farthing, years ago.)
Reason and Rationalityby Jon Elster
Very, very short.
An Object of Beautyby Steve Martin
More on the art market. Martin is not a bad novelist, considering everything else he is, but I doubt I would have read the book if it had a different author’s name on the cover.
Shopgirlby Steve Martin
Turns out to be basically the same book, except much creepier since you realize Martin’s basically just using the book to work through his guilt about screwing over younger women.
Good to Greatby Jim Collins
Most business books consist of a bunch of wacky ideas dressed up with even wackier names and presented as the Next Big Thing. Jim Collins greatly improves the genre, by replacing the wacky ideas with actual science. (Unfortunately, he continues the tradition of wacky names.)
Collins and his team picked out all Fortune 500 companies that sustained 4x market returns for more than 15 years (the great companies) and went back to find the transition point where they went from earning normal-market returns to their 4x returns. Then they found the most similar company at that transition point and used it as a control. They examined what differed between the great companies and the controls and describe it here. Of course, you have to trust Collins to pick out the right lessons, but the ones he chooses seem like very good ones.
Good to Great and the Social Sectorby Jim Collins
A short little appendix describing how to apply these principles to non-profits.
Built to Lastby Jim Collins and Jerry Porras
This book is very similar toGood to Greatexcept it uses even worse science and even worse names. (Clock building? Really? Can’t we just call it institution building?) Just readGood to Great— the important stuff from this book is presented in its last chapter anyway.
Beyond Entrepreneurship by Jim Collins and William C. Lazier
This book has pretty much no science (although fewer silly names as well). It’s just a lazier version ofBuilt to Last.
You Lost Me Thereby Rosencrans Baldwin
I knew Rosencrans had a novel out, but I was shocked to see it at the checkout counter. But it’s great!
Bigfoot: I Not Dead by Graham Roumieu
The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Filesby the writers ofThe Thick of It
Not that funny. (The Thick of Itis one of the top 5 great TV shows of all-time, though.)
The Lifecycle of Software Objects[online] by Ted Chiang
Read it! Even people who know much more about sci-fi than me agree this is one of the great science fiction books of all time. It’s a novel about the ethical issues with AI.
Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Storiesby Zack Whedon
Definitely funny, though not as great as the show.
Wrestling With Mosesby Anthony Flint
A decent attempt at a biography of Jane Jacobs, though I would have wanted more detail on how she actually did what she did. Caro he is not — either in writing or research.
Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At Allby John Schwartz
Surely you’ve heard about the studies showing short people don’t make as much as tall people. John Schwartz set out to write a book to cheer kids up about this fact, but looking into them he found it wasn’t a fact at all. The result is a model of self-help through science and media criticism. Schwartz playfully teaches you enough math and science to be able to debunk the studies and enough personal advice to make a life on your own terms.
Disclosures:I know Rory Stewart, Dean Baker, John Schwartz, Ryan Grim, Randall Munroe, and Charles Karelis. Baker and Karelis provided me with free copies. Ryan Grim and John Schwartz have written about me in other forums.
In the future, I think I should probably do this monthly instead of one huge yearly installment.
You should follow me on twitterhere.
January 3, 2011